By Maggie Wolff Peterson
The typical view of the Shenandoah Valley's autumn colors comes with altitude. Up the Blue Ridge mountainsides visitors look for a long vista over the treetops. Skyline Drive clogs with drivers headed for scenic overlooks; the normally serene two-lane roads between isolated mountain hamlets choke with automobiles.
But there is one route that is actually less traveled in fall: the river. With the summer's water sports finished for the year, outfitters on the Shenandoah River still have canoe, kayak and tube trips that offer seasonal views in peace and solitude.
"The fall trips are some of my favorites," said Don Roberts, owner of Front Royal Canoe Company. "The fall foliage is just awesome, viewed from the river."
Fallen leaves ride the surface of the river, and those above are reflected in the water below, Roberts said. "There's a carpet of color," he said. "The river itself becomes a mirror of fallen foliage."
Cooler temperatures mean more comfortable travel, and off-season travel means fewer people, Roberts said. "You can have the river to yourself."
Unlike in August, when the river may be low for lack of rain, water levels in autumn are usually robust. Because it's tropical storm season, coastal hurricanes dump moisture that replenishes the river. At the company's website, frontroyalcanoe.com, daily updates indicate the river level, speed and temperature, water clarity and fishing conditions.
"Fall fishing is through-the-roof good," Roberts said.
Falling water temperatures tell the fish it's time to prepare for winter. "It causes them to feed more," Roberts said.
A fisherman's lure becomes more attractive when fish are looking for something to bite. Mostly, smallmouth bass are found in the river, but the hollows hold largemouth bass, catfish roam the river bottom and everywhere there are "all the pan fish, the bluegill, the sunfish," Roberts said.
Nancy Sottosanti, owner of Shenandoah River Outfitters in Luray, said one of her customers recently caught a three-and-a-half pound, 19-inch largemouth.
"That's a big one," she said.
An unusually rainy summer has kept river levels high, Sottosanti said. The fishing is good this year.
And because the stretch of river traveled by Shenandoah River Outfitters is close to the George Washington National Forest, wildlife is abundant, Sottosanti said. Visitors have spotted everything from bald eagles to mink.
"We had a bear cub running down the road in front of us yesterday," she said. "Other people have seen the mom and two or three cubs."
The Sottosantis have been river enthusiasts since the 1960s, when the family moved to the country. Soon, friends were coming out for river trips. With the purchase of Campside Grocery Store in 1970, the family business was underway. Since then, the Sottosantis have made a mission of river conservation, while growing the business and adding accommodations.
Autumn trips down the river are especially lovely, Sottosanti said. "It's just a beautiful river," she said. "You flow down between mountains."
Additionally, the outfitter offers overnight trips for campers in a wooded grove adjacent to the George Washington National Forest. Camp Outback is a pet-friendly, tent-camping ground with 25 sites, each with a picnic table and fire ring. A 10-acre lake on the national forest grounds is a half-mile hike away, and other hiking trails offer both serene and rugged terrain. According to the company website, the peak time for foliage trips is mid-October.
The website links to activities from auto racing to winery tours, for travelers who want to plan a schedule of activities around their river trip.
Visitors can choose day trips of as little as one hour, or longer. Outfitters offer flatwater and whitewater trips of two or three hours, as well as overnight accommodations that range from simple to elegant.
Shenandoah River Outfitters offers nine riverside cabins year-round, seven of which have hot tubs. "It's a nice way to relax," Sottosanti said.
Front Royal Canoe Company also makes overnight accommodations available, with cabins for rent on a 60-foot bluff overlooking the river. With cable television, wi-fi and fully equipped kitchens, Roberts said they are ready for travelers looking for comfort after a day of river paddling.
Wine-tour packages are also available, with drivers supplied so that all visitors may imbibe. "It's a wine tour one day, and paddle the next," he said. "And on the wine tour, we're going to drive."
Contact Front Royal Canoe at 8567 Stonewall Jackson Highway, Front Royal, at 540-635-5440 or www.frontroyalcanoe.com. Contact Shenandoah River Outfitters at 6502 S. Page Valley Road, Luray, at 540-743-4159 or www.shenandoahriver.com/.